Seeking an antidote to Learning Poverty
In 2019, the World Bank introduced the concept of Learning Poverty to measure when children are unable to read or understand a simple text by age 10. In poor countries, the Learning Poverty rate is as high as eighty percent. Often excluded due to poverty, conflict, or discrimination, these children are at risk of being forgotten or ignored as they are assumed to be uneducable. These are children like 13-year-old James in Liberia.
“I used to feel bad when I was out of school and could see my friends go to school. I cried,” says James, a student in the Luminos Fund’s program. “Now, my brother and I do homework together.”
“When I grow up, I want to be a journalist because I want to talk about my country,” he adds.
The Luminos Fund in Liberia
Liberia’s struggles are well known. The country ranked 181 (out of 188) on the UNDP’s Human Development Index for 2018, there is a 64% poverty rate, and the World Bank estimates that one third of Liberian children are stunted. And yet, amidst these challenges, Liberian children are learning to read in Luminos Fund classrooms at one of the highest rates on the continent.
Since 2016, the Luminos Fund has worked in Liberia to scale up Second Chance, an accelerated learning program that supports children like James to become literate and numerate in 10 months. We now operate across four counties. Many students in our Liberia program are first-generation readers and have been out of school, so the opportunity to learn to read is especially meaningful for their families and themselves.
According to Luminos external evaluation results from last year (2018/19), the average Second Chance graduate in Liberia identifies 39 familiar words per minute (wpm). This is up from essentially zero at the beginning of the program. Definitions of functional literacy vary and may include reading comprehension, like the World Bank does. Luminos sets a target of 30 wpm or more. By this measure, Luminos students are achieving functional literacy within our 10-month program. To put this in perspective, merely 21.1% of Grade 3 and 5.8% of Grade 2 students in Liberia can correctly identify this many words per minute (Ref. USAID Early Grade Reading Barometer, Liberia, Familiar words sub-task, 2013. https://earlygradereadingbarometer.org/liberia/results).
Our recipe for success
In Second Chance, Luminos applies the best global knowledge regarding what’s most effective for first-generation readers and reimagines it for the Liberian context. Through a joyful and phonics-centered curriculum, classes capped at 30 students, 8-hour school days, and locally developed reading materials, we enable children to become independent readers. In a Second Chance school day, on average, five hours are spent on literacy. Children see themselves in the texts and reading is presented as an integral part of the world around them.
We use a structured approach to phonics to ensure students build the requisite skills to read by the end of the program. We try to strike a balance between direct instruction, which is essential to teach the technical aspects of reading, and activity-based learning, which is at the core of our pedagogy. Students practice using Elkonin Sound Boxes and Blending Ladders, as well as finger tapping as a multi-sensory way to learn spelling and syllables. We are streamlining the process wherein teachers give students weekly timed reading assignments and remedial support is provided to the bottom performers. Our goal is to not leave any child behind as a reader.
We believe a structured approach, supplemented by honest, regular feedback as well as space for creativity, is key to success. We created detailed guides for our teachers to provide them with daily guidance on technical aspects of the curriculum while also providing intervals wherein they can innovate and design appropriate activities for children. This helps keep teachers motivated and in charge of the learning happening in their own classrooms.
Additionally, we provide weekly coaching and supervision in the classroom, conduct regular teacher training workshops, and are proud to partner with the Liberian Ministry of Education (MoE). For example, the MoE provisions some classroom space to Luminos and we train MoE officials on our Second Chance pedagogy.
More than seven thousand Liberian children have learned to read through Luminos programs: children who now have a pathway out of learning poverty. Ninety percent of Luminos students transition to mainstream school at the end of the program. We have trained 350 teachers and government officials at the district and regional levels.
Key opportunities and challenges lay ahead as we build our program and experiment with new routes to scale in Liberia, such as working more with overage students (i.e., children in school but years behind their correct grade level). We are immensely proud of our program to-date, but recognize that ongoing, urgent work remains to build our evidence base in Liberia. Our team is eager to expand upon the successful programming and strong relationships we have established to help more Liberian children, like James, realize their dreams of learning – and learning to read – in a joyful classroom environment.
“As Liberia works to provide all children a quality education, we are pleased to have non-government organization partners, like the Luminos Fund. They are working to ensure those who have missed out on an education get a second chance to learn. It is such vital support here in Liberia where for many out-of-school children the second chance to learn is a first chance at an education. Partners like Luminos align well with our national vision for education.” — Professor Ansu Sonii, Minister of Education, Liberia